:: Chapter Thirty Three :: Or Die Trying ::


In just one breath

Your dreams will fade

A moment in time

For fear to embrace

The future is my enemy

Long days and endless nights

Pain awakes my sleep

And ends in a silent barrage of calm

Look at me through jaded eyes

Forever see the mask I wear

Never feel pity for me
It's the way my life lives

-Novembers Doom-


They all sat in silence for many long moments as their shuttle skidded along the metal tracks, slicing through the heavy layers of snow as the wind whistled past the vehicle. Their breathing had finally slowed, their heart rates falling back into normal ranges as they silently observed each other, all wounded, all burned, all pained.

None of them had come out without scars—even Tali's suit was blackened in places from where the acid had struck her, and Liara was battered in places as well. None had escaped the tide of rachni—and particularly none of those who they had left behind.

"Are you all ok?" Shepard finally asked after a long while, looking at each of them in the eye for a few moments while they nodded.

"We're good, sir," Ashley said weakly as she leaned back on the wall of the shuttle and slowly nodded.

"We'll kick them back to hell," Wrex said, his usual gusto faded somewhat—an oddly surreal experience. In the short time that Shepard had known the krogan, quiet wasn't a word he would have ever used to describe him—but there was little else he could use now. Even the krogan's eyes were dull and filled with tiredness despite the battle fury which he had immersed himself in only a short while ago. Perhaps it was a krogan hangover of sorts.

"What about you, Shepard?" Tali asked from beside him, stepping a little bit closer as she turned to examine him. Blood ran down the side of his chest in a steady stream, though it seemed that it had stopped flowing as the dripping had slowed in the last couple of minutes. His shining new armor had been scarred in more places that he had imagined it would be, much of his limbs and good portions of his torso covered in the black acidic burns.

"I'm fine," Shepard said with a slow, perhaps unconvincing nod. Not that he was suffering from any physical pain—he had become used to the dull throbbing of his wounds to the point he barely noticed them any longer, but there was something else that bothered him more than that. But he couldn't quite pinpoint it.

"You sure?" Tali asked as she looked at him, the concern that was evident in her eyes pushing away the veil of darkness which he had felt slowly creeping up on him. For her sake, to alleviate her concerns at least a little bit, Shepard smiled warmly at her and nodded, this time more firmly.

Tali merely stared at Shepard, her posture and eyes unchanging as she watched him, as if she didn't quite buy it. After all, she had spent most of her life speaking to people who she couldn't see beyond body language and eyes—Shepard wouldn't have been surprised to learn she was far more perceptive that he was.

Their shuttle came to a stop as the doors on the side slid open, the blackened metal screeching as it slid away. They all stepped out uneasily, their hands at their weapons and surveying the eerie silence.

"Where are they?" Garrus asked, echoing the thoughts that they all most likely had in their mind.

"They might not have had the rachni up here," Kaidan reasoned. "They wouldn't have been able to make it here without the shuttle—we had to pass over the ravine between the two peaks to make it here."

"Maybe," Shepard said with a small shrug. "But stay on your guard—we still don't know if we're going to find more geth here."

They quietly continued through the desolate hallways, the sound of their metal boots clanging against the floor echoing across the many hallways and rooms, making it sound as if they were surrounded by a legion of soldiers storming towards them.

"Shepard, that's the maintenance lab," Kaidan said as he pointed towards another one of the branching hallways. "Maybe we can find schematics for the layout of this place inside there?"

Shepard gave a shrug and continued down the hallway that Kaidan had pointed out, coming to a dimly lit room filled with a couple of terminals at the end of the room and a couple of open boxes thrown about the room, as if the previous occupants had left in a hurry.

"Tali, see if you can learn anything from those terminals," Shepard said.

Tali headed over to the terminal and tapped on it a few times before she froze, slowly shaking her head.

"Keelah, Shepard…" Tali said after a minute, turning to glance at him for a moment. "They have a rachni queen."

"A queen?" Shepard said breathlessly. "How did they get a queen?"

"How did they even get any rachni?" Kaidan asked. "I thought they went extinct a thousand years ago!"

"Sure as hell they did," Wrex grumbled under his breath.

"Where's the queen at?" Shepard asked. "Something makes me think that this queen and Saren have more to do with each other than it seems."

"An army, maybe?" Kaidan offered.

"Doesn't seem like it's following orders too well," Garrus said with a snort.

"Unless they're trying to sow havoc," Kaidan said.

"Do you know where the queen is being kept, Tali?" Shepard asked more firmly as he stepped beside her.

"Uhm… it's in… the engineering bay," Tali said. "We can get to it if we keep going the way we were going."

Shepard's omni-tool lit up for a moment as a holographic map lit up above his wrist.

"We've just got to keep going down that hallway, and then it's just down in that room over there," Tali said, gesturing to one of the rooms on the farthest edges of the map.

"Then we know what we need to do," Shepard said with a nod. "Is there anything else useful on that terminal?"

Tali silently shook her head, and their squad moved out. They stepped back down the hallway they had come from and hung a right, heading down through a decontamination chamber—which stopped them like an airlock and ran a beam of light over top of them—and then down another hallway.

"You think they'd use less hallways," Garrus muttered as they stepped through another one.

"We're almost there," Tali assured him. At the end of the hallway, the door slid open without any hindrance, and they stepped into a wide open room with a couple of lockers and crates placed neatly against the walls. A few terminals were on the sides of the room, as well as a glass wall that opened up to another room that Shepard couldn't make out in the darkness.

A loud crack scared them all to alertness as a bullet seared down from the ceiling and slammed into Shepard's chest, his shields readily absorbing most of the damage.

"Hoppers!" Tali shouted out as she slid to the ground, pulling her shotgun off her back while she simultaneously lifted her omni-tool up into the air and sent a pair of the odd machines falling to the ground.

"Left flank!" Kaidan shouted, noticing the three platforms which had been idly standing in the shadows of the corner of the room, each carrying assault rifles in their hand.

With a loud crack, Garrus took down the first geth, throwing the petty machine into the back wall with his large rifle, and with a small flash Kaidan threw them both back onto the ground where Wrex readily disposed of them.

Another flash of Tali's omni-tool and another trio of geth hoppers simply fell from the ceiling, shattering as they came to land on the steel floors.

"That's all of them," Tali finally said after the room was quiet for a moment.

"I think this means we're in the right place," Kaidan said with a quiet chuckle.

Tali made her way over to the door on the far side of the room, stopping in front of it.

"Locked," Tali said with a slight frown. "The rest weren't locked."

"Then looks like we're in the right place," Kaidan said again with a smirk.

Shepard patiently waited for a few minutes as Tali alternated presses on her omni-tool and the door, but then Tali slowly shook her head and stepped back from the door.

"I… can't get it open," Tali said as she sighed quietly. "There are safeguards in place to keep the facility in lockdown… we can't override them without a code or until this room has been properly purged."

"Isn't this room already clean?" Shepard asked as he glanced around for any more rachni.

"The system won't believe you," Tali said with a shrug.

"How do you think we can activate the purge?"

Tali paused for a moment with a pensive expression. "Maybe… if we can find a connection to the security systems."

"Like what we did with the mainframe?"

Tali nodded silently. "Like the mainframe. Then I'd be able to trick the system into thinking that the facility was clean."

Shepard put a hand to his chin. "Which direction should we go, then?" he asked, nodding his head to the doors on both sides of the room.

Tali shrugged helplessly. "I… don't know," she said as she looked down at her feet.

"Then we'll guess," Shepard said with a shrug as he turned towards the door on his left. He extended his hand to the door mechanism and it easily slid open, revealing another—

"Hallways, again," Garrus grumbled.

They continued through the hallway, and at the end of the room was a small room with a glass window displaying a large mechanism hanging from the ceiling that Shepard wasn't familiar with.

"Generator," Tali said the instant she saw the machinery.

"Do you think you can get a connection here?" Shepard asked as he gestured towards the terminal at the back of the room.

"I'll try," Tali said quietly as she stepped forward.

"If there is a rachni queen," Garrus began to say, "How are we going to stop it?"

"With bullets," Wrex said with a chuckle. "You turians are dumb."

"Tell me about it," Ashley said with a wry grin.

"Well, it sure wasn't a krogan who pulled your ass out of the fire," Garrus said in mock anger.

"The power's down," Tali said as she tapped on the lifeless terminal a few times, but it refused to come to life. "The whole system must be down—that's why the lights are so dim, it's only emergency power."

"Is that going to be a problem?"

"It would be," Tali said. "But I think I can just bypass this terminal…"

Tali crouched down and slid the side panel off the terminal and attached something similar to the bug that she had given Shepard earlier inside of the machine, and then she stood back up and continued tapping on her omni-tool. With a satisfied smile that was evident even through the purple mask, the lights began to glow a bit brighter and the generator engaged with a loud hum.

"Power's on," Tali said.

"Good work, Tali," Shepard said with a warm smile on his face as he regarded the proud engineer.

So proud, yet covered in blood. The smile faded away from Shepard's face as he scanned Tali's suit, the dried blood covering her suit that did not slow her exuberance. Perhaps she has become used to blood, Shepard thought, though he no longer could tell whether that was even good or bad.

"Something wrong?" Tali asked, glancing over at Shepard.

"No, not at all," Shepard said, quickly shaking himself out of his stupor. He didn't have time for those kinds of thoughts. "Can you unlock the main door?"

"Already done," Tali said. "I tricked the system into thinking that all the appropriate security overrides have already taken place," she explained as if it were something as simple as eating or breathing. But perhaps for Tali, engineering was simpler than eating or breathing.

They quietly made their way back to the previous room, their hands on their weapons as they waited in hushed anticipation for the door to open.

With a loud buzz, the door slowly slid open, revealing a grand chamber filled with floating catwalks above the low floor below them, but most terrifying of all was the giant rachni calmly sitting inside of the glass vessel in the center of the room.

"The queen," Shepard said with a slow shake of his head. It was unlike the other rachni that they had encountered—rather than having a red carapace like all the other rachni which they had encountered up to this point, it was hued purple and had a multitude of eyes which appeared to glow.

"Commander Shepard," someone called out—a voice that was clearly feminine, but twisted with cruelty and a lack of compassion that chilled even Shepard's blood.

An asari made herself visible from behind a tall terminal that jutted out beside the glass chamber which held the rachni queen in place. She was tall and her skin was colored a sickly pale blue, with a strange helmet atop her head which had spires protruding from the sides. Her dark eyes spoke of no compassion, of a soul filled with utter emptiness and an uncaring of life.

It was odd how familiar those eyes looked.

"Mother," Liara said breathlessly beside him, her mouth agape as she stared at the cruel woman. For a brief moment, Shepard felt a pang of regret for the asari—even despite the falsehoods that Shepard believed he had seen in her, there was no denying that seeing your own mother in a twisted visage such as the one portrayed to her was harrowing.

Benezia paid no heed to her dumbfounded daughter, instead slowly stepping forward to stand meters away from Shepard and his squad, all with their weapons ready in hand, but the woman made no attempt to attack or even show any aggression.

"What are you doing here?" Shepard finally asked, stepping forward, their initial task coming back to the forefront of his mind. To determine Saren's plans, and then to convince Benezia to leave Saren.

But that last part wasn't going to happen.

"Fulfilling destiny," Benezia said as she narrowed her eyes cruelly. "It has already been done. There is no stopping Sovereign's rise—you are too late, human."

"Mother," Liara said again, stepping forward.

Benezia calmly transferred her icy gaze from Shepard and onto her daughter, her expression unrelenting as she stared at Liara, who looked as if she were about to let loose a torrent of tears.

"Foolish girl," Benezia said with spite in her voice. "You were given a single chance to join Saren's cause—you would have had riches and security beyond your childhood dreams, yet you turned that down—and for what?"

Saren had offered to work with Liara? Yet, when they found her on Therum, she had been under attack, stuck within her Prothean sphere…

She had refused.

"Because I don't know you anymore," Liara said, not with contempt or anger, but a simple sorrow that even Shepard couldn't deny.

Benezia laughed cruelly, her lips curving in an evil smile as she slowly raised a hand in front of her. Liara's hand snapped to her pistol at her side as she shouted "Watch out!"

Liara's warning proved to be far too little, far too late. In an instant, Benezia's pent up biotic energy blasted into them as the room began to spin around, everything becoming an indistinguishable blur, the floor suddenly turning into a ceiling, and the metal railings quickly dashing away from him as he reached out for them helplessly. Shepard slipped past the railings with the tip of his fingers before he felt himself propelled at an unnatural speed before he slammed onto the hard metal floor—or was it the wall?—shoving the air out of his lungs, along with a gout of blood.

Shepard pushed himself back up, the room reorienting as he balanced himself. He quickly looked around, seeing his companions all in similar situations, but each of them similarly pulling themselves up off the ground with fire in their eyes.

A pair of asari gently floated down—their appearance like magic—as they flung their hands out and sent another blast of biotic energy which slammed them all into the far wall, albeit not as heavily. Wrex was the first to recover—who, with his considerable mass, was barely fazed by the attack, as he charged forward with a supernatural burst of speed. His shotgun appeared in his hands as he neared the two asari, a blast harmlessly bouncing off the shields of one woman before he barreled into her, falling into a heap on the ground.

Without any emotion on her face, the other asari lifted a hand and sent Wrex flying back into a wall, this time with a much more pronounced thump as the massive krogan left a considerable dent before he rolled away from the wall and landed on the floor in a limp, unconscious heap.

All the while, Garrus had quickly recovered and had lifted his rifle up to his eye, sending a shot flying at the asari who wasn't crushed into the ground, knocking her off balance but unable to punch through the shields. A paired up burst of harmonic assault rifle shots slammed into her, her shields easily absorbing the first few shots but falling underneath Kaidan and Ashley's combined assault.

The two asari soldiers out of the way, Shepard turned his attention back to the catwalks high above him, seeing Benezia's evil visage staring down at them. Shepard lifted his shotgun and fired a blast—which would be useless at this range—as he looked around for some way to get up to her. There was a ladder on the opposite side of the room—but how was he going to get up without being killed?

Shepard wasn't given enough time to contemplate his next move as the floor shook beneath him, the vibrations growing stronger by the second until he was flung across the room, accelerating rapidly. Learning from his last experience, Shepard rolled up into as tight of a ball as he could manage with his thick armor, landing with his back rather than his face.

Getting back on his feet much quicker this time, Shepard spun around and brought his shotgun to the ready as he prepared to flip on his cloaking module and make the mad dash to Benezia before she could do any more damage. Garrus had joined Wrex in unconsciousness, and Ashley and Kaidan were both in a groaning heap on the ground. Liara and Tali had gotten to their feet faster than even Shepard had—perhaps their more nimble stature gave them an innate defense against Benezia's relentless biotics.

The time Shepard spent contemplating his next move was cut short, however, as he felt the similar feelings of vertigo and weightlessness, but this time, instead of feeling himself accelerating rapidly until he was flung into a wall, the floor lifted away from him as he rose in the air to float helplessly in front of Benezia.

"It's too late," Benezia said with a wicked smile as she clenched her fist shut. In a single moment, Shepard felt a pain greater than that of every single injury that he had ever felt combined, as if he was being pulled apart atom by atom, muscles from bones, skin from flesh, bones from marrow. Shepard's eyes shut as he felt himself flickering out of consciousness, but he forced himself back into the pain, steering away from the cold embrace of painless death.

Shepard swung his hand around to level his shotgun at Benezia, but suddenly he found that the weapon was no longer there, but instead, it was falling to the ground as his hands were unable to grasp onto the handle any longer. Shepard tried to grasp onto the pistol at his side, but as soon as he pulled it from the clasps on his hip, the weapon fell along with his shotgun.

He had nothing to defend himself with.

"Goodbye, Commander," Benezia said simply as she clenched her outstretched hand, suddenly closing off his chest as if a thousand pound weight had been hefted atop him, unable to draw air through his lips.

Was this what Tali had felt like? Helpless to her own demise? Unable to even draw breath in her final moments?

Perhaps he deserved this.

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

"Shepard!" Tali shouted at the man floating helplessly in the air nearly fifteen meters above her, as if the strength of her voice could have freed him. Blood dripped from the soldier at an alarming rate, and every time Benezia's hands twisted or clenched a little bit tighter, Tali could see the waves of biotic energy rolling over him and squeezing a little bit tighter with each passing moment.

Tali desperately looked around her—Ashley lied on the ground, slowly moving but barely conscious, Kaidan in a similar position. Liara was pulling herself off the ground, but she didn't have any weapons strong enough. Even Wrex and Garrus were both dreadfully still—Tali could only hope that the two soldiers were merely unconscious. But Shepard couldn't wait until they awoke—he was going to be dead in minutes if they couldn't do anything about it.

There was a ladder she could use to climb back up—but that would take too long, and Benezia would only throw her down onto the ground again. Was there some way she could overload her shields?

No, that wasn't going to work either—it wouldn't release her hold on Shepard, and she was too far away for her shotgun to do any damage.

She bent down and quickly picked up Garrus' long rifle, thrown to the ground in the fall, and lifted it up to her eyes like she had seen him do so many times. Sniper rifles weren't part of her training, but damnit, she had to try something!

She looked through the scope and found Benezia, trying to do her best to center the cross onto the woman's face but barely able to keep her unsteady hands from shaking. She took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves, trying to hold steady, and trying to ignore the fact that she was firing a potentially lethal shot at Liara's mother.

But it had to be done.

Tali pulled the trigger as Garrus' rifle cracked, so much louder when it was right beside her head, the recoil sending the rifle flying out of her hands and onto the ground behind her.

But for a brief moment, Benezia's concentration flickered as the high speed round flew into her chest, easily deflected by her biotic barriers but with enough force behind it that it threw her off balance, causing her to careen backwards for a moment.

A moment long enough to release Shepard, sending him falling to the ground once again.

Tali dashed forward, no plan in her mind as Shepard fell to the ground once again, Tali outstretching her arms in an attempt to catch him.

A flash of biotic energy pulsed from beside her and Shepard quickly slowed down, his slowly moving—but still almost three hundred pound—frame landed in her arms, the massive man ignoring her feeble attempts at carrying him and falling to the ground despite her best efforts.

Tali glanced over at Liara for a moment, her hands extended as she released Shepard on the ground, and gave her a thankful nod as she pulled the shotgun from her back.

As if on cue, a trio of geth soldiers simply jumped down from the catwalks above, landing with a resounding thump on the metal floors with their rifles already out and firing at Tali and Liara. Diving low to avoid their fire, Tali activated her omni-tool and sent a pulse flying towards them which disabled their internal shield generators and momentarily froze them in their tracks.

Liara sent the machines flying backwards into the wall, giving Tali time to dash forward and shove her shotgun into the machine's optics, blowing them out with an easy pull of her trigger.

Kaidan and Ashley both made their way to their feet, grabbing their rifles which they had lost in the chaos.

"Benezia!" Tali shouted, pointing up at the asari still standing stiffly above them.

Kaidan swung an arm and sent a blast of energy flying towards the woman, but she merely extended a hand and a blue barrier—similar to the one that Liara had made earlier—and the blast was deflected without Benezia's cruel expression changing.

Benezia jumped over top the railing and floated herself down to the ground, flaring with blue biotic energy as she readily lowered herself. Ashley and Kaidan both unleashed a volley of bullets towards her, but her shields and the purple tinged biotic barrier which surrounded her held strong against the hail of bullets. She raised a hand and swung it to the side effortlessly, tossing Ashley and Kaidan both onto the ground, their rifles flying away from them.

Liara stepped forward, putting one leg out ahead of her as she extended both of her hands as she sent a blast flying towards her mother, but Benezia merely smiled and put her hand in front of her, the blast simply deflecting off her hand.

Benezia stepped over top of Shepard's body and towards Liara, standing at the back of the room. Liara threw out another biotic burst, supplemented with a few bullets from her pistol, but with a clench of her hand, Benezia threw the pistol from Liara's hand and sent it across the room beside the scrabbling figures of Kaidan and Ashley. With another wave of her hand, Ashley and Kaidan were both sent flying into the wall brutally, but this time, they did not stand back up.

"Stop this, mother!" Liara shouted as she sent off yet another biotic blast, this time with ragged breath and evident exhaustion in her limbs. With the same ease, Benezia blocked it and countered with a clench of her fists, lifting Liara into the air and slamming her against the wall, holding her in place.

All this time, Tali had been silently observing the conflict as she desperately linked into Benezia's systems, silently disabling her shields as she continued to fight. But now was the time for action. Tali deftly slipped the shotgun from her back once again and charged towards Benezia, occupied with Liara who she held on the wall. Getting as close as she would dare to get to Benezia, Tali raised her shotgun and pointed it at Benezia's hip, hoping to disable rather than kill.

She fired her shotgun, fully expecting blue blood to splatter across the floor, but to her surprise, Benezia merely flickered with energy briefly before she calmly turned to face Tali, dropping Liara onto the floor where she clenched onto her chest and took a few ragged breaths.

"That's twice you've interrupted me," Benezia said with a coldness that froze Tali in her tracks.

Benezia lifted a hand, pulling Tali off the ground as she felt her throat tighten, as she felt the air getting pushed out of her chest.

It was like an invisible hand had clasped around her throat, choking the life from her as she already began to feel her lungs screaming for air, her vision already beginning to flicker.

Tali's fingers desperately grasped at her hip, trying to find her shotgun, but her attempts were futile. There was no escaping.

They were all going to die.

‡ ‡ ‡ ‡

Shepard took a few breaths through his pained chest, the simple act of breathing sending horrible spikes of burning pain searing through his whole body. He had blacked out for a moment—but how long? His vision was blurry—he could barely make anything out beyond simple grey and black.

Shepard pushed himself to his feet, some unknown instinct prodding him along. He turned to face the asari in black at the other side of the room, whose name had vanished from his mind. Her hand was outstretched, though Shepard did not know what she focused on.

Some unknown force pushed Shepard forward, his feet dragging along the ground as he walked towards the asari, reaching down to grab the blade at his leg.

Shepard tripped over a rifle on the ground—Garrus' rifle. The turian lied unconscious—or perhaps dead—on the other side of the room, near Wrex's similarly unmoving body. The bright pink spot of Ashley's armor was in the other corner, and Shepard could make out Kaidan's armor lying beside it as well.

Shepard slowly made his way closer to Benezia, trying to see what she was focused on. Liara lied on the ground as well, alive but sprawled out across in the floor in such a way that Shepard could instantly tell she was no longer part of the battle.

And who was left? There was someone missing—the empty feeling inside of Shepard told him that well enough.

But something else told Shepard that it didn't matter. There was one thing he had to accomplish—killing the asari that stood in front of him.

"Tali," Shepard mumbled, tripping slightly as his vision began to clear.

Benezia. That was who he had to kill.

Tali's familiar purple frame was squeezed up against the wall, Benezia's biotics holding her in place as the very life was squeezed from her frail figure. Everything felt so surreal, as if Shepard was merely observing a painting rather than experiencing the events.

"Tali," Shepard said again, this time more loudly, with more vigor. She was in danger—she was dying. She was going to die.

Shepard stepped closer to Benezia, close enough to tap on her shoulder if he so pleased.

"Let go of Tali," Shepard mumbled as Benezia turned her head to face Shepard, still holding onto Tali.

With a flash of light, Shepard's blade struck out in front of him and sliced through Benezia's unmarred face, sending a splatter of blue blood across the floor as she reeled back in pain, falling onto the ground in surprise.

Shepard jumped on top of her, gaining momentum as he thrust the knife into her stomach, the blade solidly connecting and sliding through her flesh before she clenched her fist and sent Shepard flying into the air, landing heavily on his back as his knife flew somewhere beyond his grasp.

Out of the corner of his eye, Shepard saw a fleeting flash of purple.

"It's too late, Shepard," Benezia said against as she stood up, holding a hand across the gash in her stomach to keep the blood from flowing out. She stepped towards Shepard, holding his blade in her hands, drenched in blue blood as she limped towards him with a caustic smile on her face.

She lifted Shepard up off the ground with her biotics, holding him tightly in a standing position as she placed the knife into his chest, slowly pressing it through the thick steel, just as Shepard had done to his own foes so many times.

Another flash of purple.

"Goodbye, Shepard."

Tali stood behind Benezia with her shotgun in her hands, and she shoved it into the small of Benezia's back. With a loud retort, the bullets seared through Benezia's spine, sending a torrent of blood flying out the gash on her stomach and sending her falling to her knees, helpless to the insufferable pain which wracked her body.

"Mother," Liara said breathlessly as she stumbled over to her bleeding mother, lying on the ground.

"Liara…" Benezia whispered quietly, a trail of blue blood pouring down her chin as she slowly turned and faced her daughter, eyes that were filled with a compassion and a caring that seemed to mock the cruelty and hate that embodied them only minutes ago.

"You must stop Saren…" Benezia whispered to her daughter as she lifted a shaking hand and gently placed it on Liara's shoulder. "He's… searching… for… the Conduit…"

"The Conduit?" Shepard asked, having lifted himself on the ground and crouched beside Benezia's body.

"Shepard, she needs medi-gel!" Liara shouted, staring at Shepard in a half-crazy desperation as moisture began to form around her crystalline blue eyes.

Shepard bit his lower lip as he realized that it was far too late for Benezia—she would have already suffered too much internal damage—and at this rate, she had already lost too much blood.

"No, my daughter," Benezia whispered, a serene expression on her face. "My time has passed… I was not strong enough."

"No, mother…" Liara whispered, a tear rolling down her cheek and dripping onto her mother's torn frame.

"Saren… is too strong… his every will tears me to shreds until I comply… the indoctrination cannot be stopped…"

"What are you talking about?" Liara said desperately, gently shaking her mother. "It's not too late—there are doctors! And we have medi-gel!"

"You cannot stop indoctrination," Benezia said calmly. "Sovereign is unstoppable—its power is too vast to even comprehend… but you must stop Saren."

"What is the Conduit?" Shepard asked, knowing that the woman would not last much longer.

"It… is located past the Mu relay," Benezia said as if she were reminiscing about a distant memory. "Its location was known to the rachni queen… I determined the location and sent the coordinates to Saren only moments ago…"

"What does Saren want with the Conduit?" Shepard asked again, this time more insistently.

"He will use it… to… to…" Benezia coughed gently a few times, small splatters of blood leaving her mouth as her chest heaved to keep her alive. "To… bring back the Reapers…"

"Mother, no…" Liara said quietly, leaning in closer to her mother.

"Stand strong, my daughter…" Benezia said once final time as she stared at her daughter's tear-filled eyes, taking one last slow deep breath as a serene expression donned her face, devoid of the suffering that tormented her frame.

Liara bent down and began to sob, pushing her face into her mother's chest as the tears freely flowed from her eyes. Tali put a gentle hand on Liara's shoulder, the somber expression visible in her silvery eyes.

Shepard slowly stood up, quietly sighing. So much pain—all because of Saren.

The Conduit—that was what Saren was looking for. But what was it? And Reapers? And Sovereign? And indoctrination? What did it all even mean?

Shepard glanced down at Liara, not wanting to interrupt her mourning. She had lost someone important to her today—there was no denying that sorrow. Of the few empathies that Shepard carried, loss was the one which he had the most experience.

Four of his squadmates lied unconscious—or maybe even dead—on the ground in front of him, Liara's mother had been gutted and blown apart in front of her, and nobody had come out without new wounds marring their skin.

But it was a price that had to be paid.

"Shepard… the queen," Tali said, jarring him from his thoughts. Shepard glanced at the catwalks above them, the massive glass chamber containing the equally massive rachni queen hanging preciously.

The rachni queen—the very creature that had been the cause of the chaos that had been wracking Peak Fifteen, the last of the species that the galaxy had fought against and suffered against thousands of years ago.

A flicker of rage passed through Shepard's body as he shuddered unconsciously.

It was because of that creature that they had been put through everything they went through. Because of it, Ventralis had been forced to sacrifice himself. Because of it, the people who were closest to him were all wounded. Because of it, Saren's plans would come to fruition.

"It needs to die," Shepard said as he turned and made his way to the ladder, his spine and shoulders straightening as he realized what he needed to do. "There has to be some kind of countermeasure in place—some way that we can kill it before it gets free. Maybe we can use some kind of environmental control—"

"Aah!" Liara suddenly yelped from behind them as Benezia pushed herself to her feet, causing Liara to slowly back away from her with a look of terror in her eyes.

"Mother?" Liara said quietly, stepping towards Benezia, who had an empty look in her wide open eyes and waved from side to side as she stood uncertainly. The blood had stopped flowing from her open wounds, yet she still stood.

"This one… is our… voice…" Benezia said haltingly, in a manner that seemed to reverberate and echo within Shepard's minds. Liara stared at the figure of her mother with her eyes wide in terror, likely similarly affected by the odd change.

"Benezia?" Shepard asked, putting a hand onto the shotgun at his side.

"This vessel… no longer serves… the bitter songs… we are… the rachni…"

Shepard flicked his gaze towards the glass pod above them, seeing the rachni, still motionless as before.

"How are you speaking through her?" Tali asked with an edge of caution to her voice as she slowly approached Benezia's unstable figure.

"We sing the songs that all hear… this one is weak… and empty… we play the music and this one responds."

"Why did you attack us?" Shepard asked, directing his question more to the glass tank than to Benezia's frame.

"We did not," Benezia said, steadying herself in some moment of strength. "Our children… were stolen… they did not hear the colors of our song… they were lost."

"Stolen? You weren't controlling them?"

"The sour notes… tainted our children… made the melody grey… made the songs tasteless. Will you release us?"

Shepard glanced over at Tali and Liara for a moment, and then back to the rachni queen.

"How do I know I can trust you?"

"You cannot," Benezia said simply. "We will return… to our homes to sing anew… we will not fight… the songs of death are bitter."

Shepard glanced over at Tali, trying to gauge what she was thinking, but it was difficult to tell when she wouldn't look at him.

"Or will you destroy us?" Benezia asked plaintively. "There is acid… that will quell our song forever."

Shepard heard a shark intake of breath from Tali before Shepard shook his head.

"No—we can't do this," Shepard said, stepping forward and climbing up the ladder.

"You're going to let her go?" Tali asked with a tone that he couldn't determine between concern or satisfaction.

"We can't let her live," Shepard said as he made it to the top of the ladder. "The last time that the rachni went free, they killed millions of people until they were stopped."

"They were different!" Tali shouted after him, quickly scrabbling up the ladder. "She said she'll go in peace!"

"I don't believe her," Shepard stated without remorse. "Ventralis sacrificed his life to give us a chance to stop the rachni—and I'm not going to waste that chance!"

"Shepard, she's done nothing wrong!" Tali pleaded as she came to stand beside him. "Binary Helix separated the rachni we fought from the queen—she had no control of them!"

"Tali, she can't be released! If she's let go, she'll wreak havoc! She'll breed more rachni and murder anyone she comes across! How can we trust her? She'll lose control and destroy us all again, if the geth weren't bad enough! We have to destroy—"

Shepard stopped suddenly, the anger vanishing from his face as he leaned over top of the control panel. One press of a button and the rachni would be permanently wiped from the face of the galaxy.

Shepard looked over at Tali, her eyes staring through Shepard like a light in the dark. They were eyes that reminded Shepard of everything—of Therum, of Saleon, of Erinle—and eyes that warned him of the monster that lurked inside of him.

Shepard could feel the rumbling within him, as if it were waiting in hushed anticipation, waiting for the chance to lash out and strike. It had always been there—even after the great strides he had taken…

Freedom was a lie.

"You're right," Shepard whispered weakly. His mind began to clear, the rashness and anger fading away as he realized how stupid and naïve he had been. "We can't kill her." There were far more things at play.

Shepard silently pressed another button and the hatch on the back of the glass pod slid open silently.

We will keep our promise.

The rachni queen slid backwards without hesitation, disappearing out of the hatch and off into the Noveria night.

Shepard leaned forward over the control panel, resting his elbows on the metal surface and his head in his hands. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.

No words needed to be spoken.

Hi, everyone-for those of you who are still with me, and followed me along the journey that I embarked on when I started writing this.

First, an apology. I'm sorry that I've stopped writing. To cut something like this-two hundred thousand words into the making-off completely, to say that it will have no further chapters or conclusion is something that pains me most likely just as badly as those who want to see and end to the tale.

But everything that I've done has been an unbelievable journey. Taking on a task like this-writing a novel... it's been amazing. There have been tough time and good times, and through it all it's been a way for me to cope with what I now realize was a crippling case of loneliness and emptiness that I didn't know how else to deal with. Perhaps it's true that the most creative people are the ones who are broken themselves. And through it all, you guys have been there to stand by me. I've always loved having a connection to a community, and for those of you still around, I'm glad to have had you through it all.

I promised a while ago (though maybe not so long to a newer reader) that I would continue with the story, in a time where I was less busy and when I could dedicate the same amount of time to writing as I once did... but that never happened. I never realized how much I had changed, and how I couldn't write as I had before. I've tried to pick up the pen (metaphorically) a few times, but every time I do, I can't carry on in the way that I used to-something is different, and nothing flows together as it once did. I don't have the room to contemplate and meticulously plan out every detail and event as I used to-and that's something that would crush and destroy what I've already written (hah, as if there were no problems to begin with!). What I mean to say is that I can't connect to my own writing any longer-even on a base emotional level, I can't pretend to be Shepard. I can't miss Garrus and Wrex, I can't cast hate onto the Council, and I can't love Tali. I've moved past it all-and I don't think I have a ticket back.

I'm sorry, again, to be cutting everything off like this. To all of you who have supported me, thank you for everything. Without you all, I never would have been able to get as far as I did-and if I hadn't, I don't know where I would be right now. Without the small pride that writing this tale gave me, I don't think I would have been able to step out of the gloom and depression like I did.

And so, I bid thee all farewell. Will I return? I don't know if I will. Maybe not to the Painted Grey. But, perhaps someday, I shall make my return to something anew.

Lost in the desolation of love
The passions we reap and sow
Lost in the desolation of life
This path that we walk. . .
Lost in the desolation of love
The sorrows we reap and sow
Lost in the desolation of life
The path that we walk. . .

But let it not haunt you as it once haunted me.

Want to chat with me? Send me an email (evangj _at_ hotmail. com), or hit me up on Steam (Zalgroth) or even Skype (zalgroth-). Can't guarantee you a timely response through Steam or Skype, but I'll do my best. I'd love to hear from you guys either way!